At the annual conferences of the Australian Institute of International Affairs in 2017 and 2018, at least two retired senior public servants strongly asserted their faith in the United States as guarantor of Australia’s security. They did so with varying degrees of asperity in response to questions from the floor suggesting that American power was slipping, and with it Washington’s inclination, even its ability, to defend Australia in the event of an attack.
The former officials also said that far from abandoning independent foreign and defence policies, Australia’s reliance on American military power was a conscious and independent decision which had not changed over a succession of Australian governments since Prime Minister Curtin’s famous public pronouncement on 27 December 1941 that ‘without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links of kinship with the United Kingdom’. For both officials, support for the ANZUS Treaty had been fundamental in their working lives. Neither would concede any merit in the argument that the alliance obliges Australia to join whatever wars the United States wants to fight, including against adversaries which may pose absolutely no threat to Australia, or even those which are essential economic and regional partners.
AIIA National President Allan Gyngell and Dr Darren Lim recently conducted a public interview in Australian Outlook with Dennis Richardson, a former Secretary of both Defence and Foreign Affairs Secretary, and a former Ambassador to Washington. Much of Richardson’s response was anecdotal, discussing form and process in the formulation of foreign policy. He observed in particular that Australia was now more self-confident in making its foreign policy analyses, and quicker in reaching policy decisions about complex issues than when he first joined the Department of External Affairs in 1969.
Richardson was asked about the growing antagonism between the United States and China. Did Australia’s economic dependence on China and its military alliance with the United States pose a dangerous, perhaps insoluble dilemma for Australia’s policy makers? Should Australia take sides? With whom? Richardson replied that Australia was friends with both China and the United States, but also a military ally with the latter. He said: ‘We need to have a very sharp sense of our own interests. The alliance is as strong and important now as it had ever been’. His inference was clearly that Australia has chosen. It will adhere to its defence arrangements with the United States, as the 2017 White Paper on Foreign Policy and its predecessors have asserted.
I recently reviewed for the AIIA website Australian Outlook, Island off the Coast of Asia – Instruments of Statecraft in Australian Foreign Policy, a radical interpretation of Australia’s statecraft by Clinton Fernandes, a former Army intelligence officer, now academic at ADFA. Fenandes’ view was that our post-war foreign policy had always been shaped by two factors – our desire to keep the United States militarily engaged in the western Pacific, and our support for western capital investment in the region. Both motives, he argued, explained Australia’s involvement in the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency, the Vietnam War, and support for the overthrow of Sukarno in Indonesia. Fernandes’ argument attracted hostile response from the foreign policy establishment in Canberra, including from a former colleague of mine – a senior diplomat and public servant. After reading my review, he declared with some distain that Fernandes’ interpretation was ‘idiosyncratic’. He would not read the book.
On 25 November 2018, an AIIA New South Wales intern Ciara Morris, examined what she called a developing institutional culture within DFAT antagonistic to China. She gave four examples- frequent repetition in DFAT literature of a ‘liberal rules-based international order’ (my emphasis), implying that China was a country that did not adhere to liberal values; frequent use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’, which by implication supported the concept of a strategic quad of India, Australia, Japan and the United States to contain China; the use of the term ‘clear-eyed’ in any analysis of China, indicating that Canberra is not fooled by Chinese diplomacy and sees the expansionist motives behind it; and Canberra’s hesitancy, unlike 90 other countries, in embracing China’s belt and road initiative. In sum, Morris concludes, DFAT institutional attitudes towards China echo a hostile United States perspective.
One could add that a similar phenomenon currently colours DFAT’s attitude towards Putin’s Russia – a tendency to accept without question every suspicion of the British intelligence community, and to suspect Moscow of the worst possible motives. The evidence is strong that the Canberra bureaucracy – DFAT, Defence, PM and C in particular, and associated think-tanks like ASPI – continue to adhere to a view that Canberra has always held about China and Russia – that they are two anti-democratic countries whose the growing power will threaten the global hegemony of the United States.
Just possibly, and despite these long-standing convictions, the Australian government may be beginning to have second thoughts about its alliance structure, especially the danger of being drawn into an American war with China. Such a re-think might even be happening without our knowledge, although there are straws in the wind. On 4 October 2018 Prime Minister Morrison told the Australian-Chinese community that Australia will continue to work constructively with China, our largest trade partner. In a more recent speech in Washington, Foreign Minister Marise Payne did not echo President Trump’s suspicions of China, insisting blandly that China remained a friend and constructive trading partner of Australia. Nor has the government joined joint RAN -USN patrols through the South China Sea to test what the United States call the ‘freedom of navigation’.
A major driver in such a reassessment must be the realisation that China will soon eclipse the United States in economic power. China’s GDP will be a nearly twice that of the United States by 2030 – US$40 trillion to US $24 trillion. As Hugh White has pointed out, money is power, and this would mean the end of American capacity militarily to contain China in the Pacific region, or elsewhere. The United States would need Australian support to contain China; if we decide not to join any military strategy to do so, Australia could make an important and independent contribution to peace in our region.
Richard Broinowski is a former senior Australian diplomat and immediate past president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs in New South Wales